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Identity? It Is like Drinking Coke When You Are Thirsty

European Elections are coming: will mainstream parties be swept away in a landslide or will they be able to reduce the damage and survive?

An empty can of Coke.

If a person is thirsty and all she/he can see is a glass of Coca-Cola, she/he will want to drink it, seeing it as the right way to quench their thirst. And yet we know that drinking a sugary drink like Coca-Cola only gives a momentary reprieve from thirst, after which it gets worse...

May 2019 is close and with it the election of the new European Parliament. Concern is running high among mainstream parties – i.e. liberal, popular and center-left parties. The populist, sovereigntist and/or far-right forces’ affirmation seems to be taken for granted; what is still uncertain is the extent of the win – will mainstream parties be swept away in a landslide or will they be able to reduce the damage and survive?

Actually, the very fact that this is the question shows that the populist and sovereigntists’ politics of fear/hope – i.e. the strategy of providing identity and the enemization of otherness as the cure for uncertainty and loss of meaning – has already done its job: it has changed the institutional, political anthropological and psychological scenario of Europe.

This is evident in the electoral contest itself. The challenge is no longer between the classical political traditions (liberal, popular, conservative); the contest is between the whole block of mainstream parties and the others, the non-conventional forces that intend to subvert institutions (European Union, Euro, even liberal democracy) in their current form.

This is emblematically shown by Macron’ proposal for a common front among moderates and progressives, united to resist the populist landslide. This proposal is indicative of the current weakness of the mainstream parties as well as of the fact that in certain circumstances the supposed solutions can make things even worse. There are two main reasons for this. First, it certifies and consolidates the simplification of the political framework, pushing the specificities of the mainstream political parties into the background. In so doing, mainstream parties run the risk of further reducing their appeal. Second, and above all, a common front among players that were competitors until just last night means helping identity and the friend-foe contrast to become deeply rooted at the core of politics. This means that even if the next elections were to overturn this verdict, the mainstream parties would achieve it at the cost of empowering the political, cultural and psychological climate that fosters populism.

I agree with those who think that it is better for mainstream parties to stand for election with their specific proposals, seeking to gain consensus on and through them, rather than in spite of them. Agreements and common fronts can be built, but that is for after the election, in the European Parliament, on the grounds and within the constraints of the electoral mandate received.

At the same time,  however relevant the electoral strategy is, it does not solve the main issue of how to address the demand for identity and certainty that populism, sovereigntist and/or far-right forces are able to solicit and satisfy. This demand works over the medium term; therefore, alternative responses to it have to be imagined on an equivalent time span. This is not to say that short-term political tactics are not necessary, but they are not sufficient. Whoever thinks that populism is the symptom not the solution to the current political crisis needs to be aware that there is a long winter to get through.

What one should recognize is that, in the final analysis, the demand for identity is a demand for meaning. One should distinguish between the content and the cause of the demand. If a person is thirsty and all she/he can see is a glass of Coca-Cola, she/he will want to drink it, seeing it as the right way to quench their thirst. And yet we know that drinking a sugary drink like Coca-Cola only gives a momentary reprieve from thirst, after which it gets worse. Identity is like that Coca-Cola – it is the content of the demand (i.e. what is requested) which does not solve the cause of the demand (i.e. the loss of sense); rather, it makes it even more critical, because identity makes people see/deal with the world in an extremely simplified way which reduces, rather than increases, their exposure to uncertainty. 

As is shown by their current centrality in society and politics (e.g. populism, hate crimes and rhetoric, fake news, spectacularization of social and political life), emotions are a powerful source of sense. It takes very little to make them work – just an us-them distinction – and therefore they are the first way of addressing the fear about the future and the feeling of uncertainty and lack of control.

Is there an alternative to this path? Yes, there is, even if it is not easy to implement. We need to reconstruct intermediate bodies, namely the context where people build social linkages.

Intermediate bodies lie between institutions and society, where the public sphere and the vital worlds (i.e. the spheres of the interpersonal and primary relationships where people express and make experience of their reciprocal subjectivities) are intertwined. Due to this intertwinement, intermediate bodies have a twofold characteristic – on the one hand, they maintain the subjective, identity-oriented, process-centered and affect-laden quality of the primary bond (i.e. the interpersonal relation within the family, between friends and neighbors); on the other hand, they follow the universalist, goal-oriented, rule-driven logic of secondary linkages (i.e. the relation between strangers). Within the framework of an intermediate body, people meet each other and build/experience meaningful interpersonal bonds – i.e. they discuss, exchange ideas, negotiate, take care of each other, regulate conflicts and so forth – which are generative  sense. Complementarily, the intermediate body is a social context that goes beyond the interpersonal bonds making it up: it is designed to pursue an aim with a broader, institutional and universal value – it does not concern only those who participate in it but also the public sphere outside it. This means that within an intermediate body, the vital worlds (people’s subjectivity, interpersonal bonds) are the fuel that motivates and provides identity and sense to the institutional function – in other words, it makes the institutional role something-that-matters-for-the-person; in turn, the intermediate body’s institutional function provides the constraint and finalization that enable vital worlds to work at the service of and as a resource for civic and political development. In brief, the intermediate body is the place where vital worlds are transformed into social capital. Take school for instance, a paradigmatic instance of intermediate body. Students and teachers express their subjectivity and bring it into play in meaningful interpersonal bonds. Teaching and learning are a global experience of participation in a lived network of exchanges that makes the experience of being a student/teacher a piece of one’s identity. Learning is productive insofar as it is a meaningful experience. At the same time, the school’s institutional mission is to channel this vital interpersonal experience, like the rider who harnesses the horse so as to direct its energy towards a goal.

Historically, intermediate bodies have had the form of stable social structures (e.g. parties, trade unions) standing between institutions and the private sphere. This type of intermediate bodies seems to have become insignificant. However, this does not mean that they are no longer necessary. Social networks that expand the environment of primary relationships (yet without elaborating them), forms of charismatic leadership in a mythical affinity with the society as a whole are two examples of the emotional modalities used by societies in the attempt to overcome the loss of intermediate bodies.

It has to be recognized that it is unrealistic to think of substituting these forms by going back to the past and restoring the forms of intermediate bodies of the last century. The challenge is to invent new forms of intermediate bodies and innovative strategies to make them develop.

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